Skip to main content


Conversation with John Esposito

Report on Conference Call: February 4, 2016

illustration from Bridge Bridge by Georgetown University infographic

Welcome and Introduction of the Speaker

Recording of the Conversation. Click here.

Marilyn Turkovich: Good day friends. Welcome to the fourth in our speaker series for World Interfaith Harmony Week. On Monday we heard from Karin Miller, talking about the ten values she explores in her new book, “Global Values: A New Paradigm for a New World.” On Tuesday we had a wonderful discussion with the Interfaith Amigos and yesterday we heard from Aleasa Word, Louisa Hext, and Marie Roker-Jones on “Bringing People Together to Create Individual and Systemic Change."

Today we have the honor of hearing from John Esposito. Dr. Esposito is an American professor of International Affairs and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. He is the Founding Director of the Alwaleed Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding in the Walsh School of Foreign Service. Previously, he was Loyola Professor of Middle East Studies, College of the Holy Cross. He is the author of over 45 books. He has had interviews and articles with newspapers, magazines, and the media in the United States, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, including The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Economist, The Guardian, The Times of London, CNN, ABC Nightline, CBS, NBC, and the BBC. John is a major contributor to the Charter's Islamophobia Guide Book ( John's book, What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam is now in its second edition (see more below under the RESOURCES section).

John, I’d like to present a prompt for you. We also shared this prompt with the Interfaith Amigos. Here it is: If September 11 seemed to pose a challenge to interfaith understanding, the subsequent years have doubled that threat. We have seen dramatic coverage of Muslim fundamentalist movements and powerful demonstrations of what appears to be faith-based terror by the Islamic State in the Levant or ISIL – with videos of beheadings, stories of ritual rape and calls to “kill the infidels.” As people in Syria, Lebanon and surrounding areas have fled out of desperation, the migrants themselves have been seen as security risks in Europe – and assailed as risks in the U.S. We have seen right-wing politicians in Europe and the U.S. call for blocking the path of refugees. Similarly, we have heard of threats that migrants from the Central and South America pose risks to the U.S. – and we’ve heard a lot about building a wall across the US Southern border. I am going to assume that most of us on this call believe this fearmongering is demagogic, simplistic and at base dishonest. But that’s not all it is – it is frightening and takes real dangers and inflates them to boogeymen. Can you address this phobia of the other and talk a bit about how to counter it?


Speaker Presentation

John Esposito: Yes, I am delighted. Thank you all for joining the call today. Let me begin with something I know I’ll forget if I don’t say it now. For those interested in anti-Islam issues, Islamophobia, etc., go to You’ll find maps, charts and extensive information. It is a project we’ve launched at Georgetown University for the broader public. [“The Bridge Initiative is a multi-year research project that connects the academic study of Islamophobia with the public square.”]

The year 2015 has been identified as the worst year for having and addressing the problem of Islamophobia. Islamophobia has grown exponentially in 2015. Anti -Muslim activity has hit an all-time high. Al Qaeda and ISIL have been major catalysts for discrimination and rhetoric against Islam.

A 2015 report states that there is no religious, social, racial or ethnic group perceived as receiving greater discrimination than Muslims.

Regarding the media, you can find statistics in the “Media Tenor” studies: . One study of nearly 975,000 news stories from the United States and European media outlets from 2001-2011 demonstrates the shocking disparity of coverage of extremist Muslims vs. mainstream Muslims.

In 2001, 2% of the news stories focused on Islamic extremism; whereas, the coverage of mainstream Muslims was only 0.1%.

In 2011, the coverage of Islamic extremism had jumped from 2% to 25%. This is somewhat understandable due to militant jihadist groups. However, coverage of mainstream Muslims (the vast majority of Muslims) remained at 0.1%. This represents an enormous disparity in media coverage which dramatically affects people who basically rely on media and social media for their news information and perspective.

A 2015 study shows that media negativity is at an all-time high. Over 80% of media coverage is negative toward Islam. Nine out of ten news stories about Islam in the United States, Germany, and the United Kingdom focused on violence and terrorism. What does that leave for the mainstream? The content of the coverage is even more disturbing. A common saying is, “If it bleeds, it leads.” Even when there is coverage of mainstream Muslims, 50% of the coverage is negative. The vast majority of stories focus on violent jihad. When the news highlights individuals, the stories focus on warlords or terrorists.

The role that media plays is significant, especially the entertainment media. Entertainment media can play a critical role in shaping people’s opinions. Narratives that promote diversity and positive social change can decrease violence. An increase in minority characters can increase acceptance. There is a program on Canadian TV called “Little Mosques” which has increased the viewers’ positive attitudes toward Muslims.

Social media is powerful. I would argue that, over last 10 years, social media has been the primary influence on popular culture. It used to be that mass media was the major source. Now it is social media. If you get something on social media to go viral, you will be sure it will be in the mass media. There has been an explosion of anti-Muslim social media sites. Many appear and sound very nice, with nice names such as “American Family,” “American Thinker”, etc. These sites are solely devoted to criticizing the religion of Islam. The majority are run by people on the far right who are anti-immigrants, etc.

Two major studies, both based on IRS returns, look at the funding of these social media sites. There is a cottage industry of pundits and bloggers that make money from spreading negative rhetoric against Muslims.

The Center for American Progress issued a report, “Fear, Inc. 2.0,” ( which reveals that $42.6 Million of philanthropic contributions flowed to these groups.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) issued a report, “Legislating Fear” ( From 2008 to 2011, $119 Million went to such groups.

These social media sites have a lot of money and a lot of power.

The American elections play a critical role as well.

Just look at the United States Presidential elections in 2008 and 2012. Many said they were against President Obama because he was Muslim. Presidential candidates Gingrich, Bachmann, etc. used criticism of Islam to improve their numbers in the polls and increase their campaign contributions.

Now, in the current Presidential campaign, Trump is calling for a temporary freeze on all Muslim immigration and the monitoring, and maybe closing, of mosques.
The latest FBI reports show that the most dangerous threats are white anti-government groups. Many of these groups are Christian-based.

Presidential candidate Ben Carson said that if Muslims were to run for President of the United States, they would have to reject their religion. After he said this, his voter percentages went up and his campaign funding went up.

Currently, 27% of people in America have a positive image of Islam. This percentage is down from 35% in 2010.

If you go to, you will find statistics demonstrating that Islamic people are now fully integrated socially, culturally, academically, and politically in America. You will find facts vs. fiction.

As a group, Muslims are second only to Jews in having college degrees. 40% have college degrees. This is in contrast to 20% for all of Americans. Muslim women are just as likely to hold college degrees as Muslim men. Muslim women span the professional sector.

30% of Muslims are full-time students as opposed to 10% of the general population.

77% of Muslims say they share the same God with Christians and Jews.

The majority of Muslims say they should emphasize their commonalities with other religions.  Mary is mentioned more in the Quran than in the New Testament of the Bible.

The active test of pluralism is whether people believe that they have the only path to salvation and eternal life.

33% of Muslims say that Islam is the only one true faith. 56% believe many religions can lead to eternal life.

We need to place Islam in two broad contexts:

The general context of religion and compassion. Look at Karen Armstrong’s book, “The Case for God”- the chapters introduce you to different religions and beliefs. Religious leaders throughout time- from around the world- speak of religion as a transcendent faith that helps us transcend our basic instincts. We realize that there is the dark side of religion that is involved with conflict and persecution. However, the positive common theme of religion is compassion. Compassion is not just feeling sorry for someone. Compassion is the ability to empathize, understand, and respond to issues of social justice and religious freedom.

The context of American values. In the United States, when we talk about Islamophobia, it is not just a religious issue. It is an American issue. Islamophobia goes against our principles and values of citizenship, civil liberties, and religious freedom.

We are at an interesting juncture today. I have not yet seen President Obama’s speech that he gave yesterday. I was travelling. When the President talks about Muslims in America, he talks about American values.

I’ll end here and take questions.


Questions & Answers

Marilyn: If you have a question for John, please “raise” your hand by pressing “1” on the key pad on your phone (not your computer). I’ll call on you and turn on your microphone.

Abigail: One thing that perplexes me is that there is no media coverage of the Marrakesh Declaration in Morocco where all the Imams are calling for religious freedom and safety of non-Muslims, etc. I keep looking and there is nothing. I find that unbelievable.

John: You are absolutely right. Three examples precede this. People still say that Muslims didn’t speak out after 9/11. Within a day of 9/11, Muslims spoke out and it was not covered by the mainstream media. Tom Friedman, a columnist for New York Times, twice stated that Muslims were not speaking out. However, in his own newspaper, an American foundation with major Muslim leaders took out an ad to condemn the 9/11 attack. When I speak publicly, I frequently ask the audience if they have heard of “A Common Word Between Us and You”. It is a document of 300 major Muslim religious leaders that said that we all have our differences but we live in a dangerous world and we have things in common and need to live together. Most people have never heard of it. These messages came out earlier and addressed Osama bin Laden and the terrorists and refuted them, but they were not covered by the media. Thus, it is not surprising that the Marrakesh Declaration has not been covered. We had a conference at Georgetown University and invited reporters from Newsweek and the Washington Post. A Muslim man asked why the media did not cover the other side of Muslim life. The reporter who answered said that media is about conflict and conflict discourse. So, where is the opposite? All you have to do is look at the evening news. Most of it is about violence and crisis with just a few sweet stories added in.

Abigail: Is this a role that the public can play? Can we write the major media outlets to ask for this information to be shared?

John: Yes, I think it is important for the public to be involved, especially if someone can get through to the media leadership. I was talking to a reporter for the New York Times and told her that I was happy to see a story published that presented the counter-position. She said that she hated to disillusion me, however, the decision to publish an editorial or article is based on whether the newspaper gets a flood of letters in response to a topic.

Therefore, I rely on blogging to get my message out. The few times I have submitted editorials, they just die on the vine. The newspaper responds that they get many submissions and will get back to me if they decide to publish my editorial. While you wait, what you wrote becomes stale.

One thing people can do is respond to blogs and posts on the Internet.

Marilyn: If people are interested in blogging, we have a number of blogging opportunities with the Charter. Also we have a channel on ( where people can share blog posts (

Musa Askari: Thank you so much for your talk. I am wondering if you feel that there is a door opening to getting out of this quagmire through a common shared spirituality. Also, have you heard of any critique of ISIL that embodies that spirituality?

John: Yes, there is an interaction among groups of people regarding spirituality. As a teacher I exposed my students to different faith traditions. I brought students to visit a Trappist monastery and a Buddhist temple. Also, we studied Sufism. People can come together in a sort of spiritual and meditation approach. It is implicit if one takes the “Common Word” seriously- the scriptures that are cited emphasize the over-arching spirituality of religion. Too often the scriptures are used in other ways.

Major Muslim leaders signed an “Open Letter to Al- Baghdadi”. It is a refutation of ISIL’s approach. Those things are there but not that well known. There is no traction for them in the media. Again, why wouldn’t a letter like this be shared?

Moji Agha: Hello Professor Esposito. Thank you so much. I’ve been admiring your work over the decades. I am an Iranian American Sufi monk and psychologist, turned full-time activist. I’ve been traveling and talking on the issue of Islamic non-violence. I’ve been trying to put these two words together (“Islam” and “non-violence”) to refute the racist narratives. One of the most challenging things for me is the term “Muslim moderate.” Obviously, I am one. In my work, I am trying to educate the American public- not the academia. The challenge is that I don’t want to fall into the trap of being called a Muslim moderate because this kind of labelling can legitimize violence on people who may be viewed as Muslim “extremists.” In Germany, when they targeted Jews, they said they were only after the “bad” Jews. How do I manage this?

John: I use the term “mainstream Muslims.” The “moderate” word is tricky. After 9/11, a Congresswoman called me. She and other members of Congress were interested in meeting with “moderate” Muslim leaders. They were nervous. They weren’t aware that there were lots of Muslim leaders they could talk too. They had just a short list. I like to use phrases like “mainstream” vs. “extremist.”
By the way, it is important to point out that if you are interested in the issue of religion and violence, there is a journal called “Religions” which has a special issue on this topic. The verses in the Quran begin with “in the name of God, the merciful and the compassionate.” People are surprised to see in the Quran that Mohammed is referred to as a “mercy.” People say that Mohammed was a warrior prophet. However, look at Joshua and David in the Bible. They had dual roles also.

Marilyn: I forgot to say that Professor Esposito has to leave early. We have time for one more question. Okay, I do not see any hands raised. Thank you John. We are most grateful for you being here today and sharing and enlightening us and giving us some powerful references. We have some additional homework we can do. We will try to share the links and organizations in the report of this call. I see Moji that you have your hand up.

Moji: Thank you. I just had one more thing to add. If you Google “Circles of Non-Violence Initiative,” you will find the Charter Partner page for the initiative. My question: Do you believe that one can credibly talk about Islamic non-violence? I use examples. I am curious about your reflections.

John: When you read the Quran, just as when you read the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, you can draw from the scriptures the passages that deal with violence. Look at these passages within the context of the time in which they were written. What about all the other scriptures that talk about what life should be like and how we should conduct our lives. The vast majority of passages in the Quran are about social justice, compassion, and equity. The passages that deal with violence, e.g. “slay the unbelievers wherever you find them,” were referring to those who were persecuting the Muslims at the time and gave Muslims the right to defend themselves. But, later in this same passage, the Quran says, as soon as the enemy stops, you must stop.
Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi both advocated non-violence. Their understanding of non-violence was different from complete pacifism.



Marilyn: Thank you John for all the time you have given us today and your generosity to the Charter.

Our sibling organization, the Compassion Games, is staging a World Interfaith Harmony Week Coopetition. We invite you to participate! Go to World Interfaith Harmony Week, register, and post your thoughts about today’s call or other reflections from this week on the global Compassion Map. You are welcome to join the “Charter for Compassion” team in the Games. This is a great opportunity for you, as an individual, or your organization, group, congregation, place of worship or interfaith community to join in the spirit of growing global unity and respect.

We have one more call this week in conjunction with World interfaith Harmony Week, a UN-supported event from February 1-7. Tomorrow, at 7 a.m. Pacific Time and 10 a.m. Eastern, we hear from Reham Hamoui and John Forseth who are working with refugees arriving in Europe and America.

Reham is a Syrian-born American currently residing in Seattle, WA. She has worked on humanitarian issues for 5 years in several capacities, including the coordination of medical missions, political advocacy, and community outreach. She is now the Director of Communications for Salaam Cultural Museum, a NGO focused on providing medical and humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees in Jordan and in Lesbos, Greece. John Forseth is working as Program Director of Refugee Resettlement and Placement in Tacoma, WA.

I want to thank you for attending this Charter presentation on Maestro Conference. We’ll send out notes and a link to the audio of the call in a couple days. These calls are always free to you, but our operation is NOT large, and we very much appreciate the financial support if you are able to “pay it forward.” To donate, go to the Charter website and click on the Donation tab.



What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam (Oxford University Press, 2nd edition, 2011).

Since the terrorist attacks of September 11th, there has been an overwhelming demand for information about Islam, and recent events - the war in Iraq, terrorist attacks both failed and successful, debates throughout Europe over Islamic dress, and many others - have raised new questions in the minds of policymakers and the general public. This newly updated edition of What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam is the best single source for clearly presented, objective information about these new developments, and for answers to questions about the origin and traditions of Islam.

Editor of The Oxford Encyclopedia of Modern Islam and The Oxford History of Islam, and author of The Future of Islam and many other acclaimed works, John L. Esposito is one of America's leading authorities on Islam. This brief and readable book remains the first place to look for up-to-date information on the faith, customs, and political beliefs of the more than one billion people who call themselves Muslims.

Charter for Compassion- Islamophobia Guide Book
The Bridge Initiative, Georgetown University, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding
The Center for American Progress: “Fear, Inc. 2.0”
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR): “Legislating Fear”
Marrakesh Declaration
A Common Word Between Us and You
Open Letter to Al-Baghdadi
Media Tenor
Charter Blog
Religions: Special Issue on “Religion and Violence”
Charter for Compassion Education Sector “Words and Violence Project”:
A History of Journalism and the Tabloids and the Mainstream Media conversion to ‘Medialoid’ (With related articles in right sidebar)
Terri Schwartz of UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television calls for a new social responsibility in media and telling ‘story:’
Mossadegh Legacy Institute and Circles of Non-Violence
Compassion Games - World Interfaith Harmony Week Coopetition